Thursday, March 29, 2012

Heaven for Women Writers

As posted today by the good folks at Open Road Media Group, publisher of Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices, a collaborative novel by the members of Seattle7Writers (my peeps).

 Hedgebrook, a Women’s Writing 

Community—Advantage, Female

Editor’s Note: Author Jennie Shortridge (When She Flew and other novels) speaks out on behalf of Women’s History Month. Jennie is a co-curator and contributor behind the epic, inventive novel Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voicesand a co-founder of the Seattle7Writers.

The conversation over wine in our seriously awesome (and mixed gender) Seattle7Writers group might go like this:
Female writer: “I just got back from Hedgebrook and it was incredible.”
Male writer: “Oh god, here we go . . .”
Another female writer: “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go! I need to apply next year.”

A third female writer: “It was the best writing experience of my life!” Male writer: “Why do women get a whole writers’ retreat to themselves? It’s 2012, for crying out loud.”

Yes, he’s jealous. Hedgebrook on nearby Whidbey Island is indeed a writing retreat and community for women only. It opened in 1987 under the direction and vision of Nancy Nordhoff and Sheryl Feldman. Hedgebrook provides six sweet, small, well-appointed cabins; forty acres of forest and farmland to wander; a rugged beach nearby; and a farmhouse kitchen for delectable family-style suppers using local Northwest ingredients. Each participant shares all this with five other women and can talk about writing together. In a word? It’s heaven. And to those female residents from around the world who are chosen from the ever-growing pool of applicants, it’s free.

Why women only? While the founders and staff feel a personal passion for supporting women writers in this very generous way, I know that others think our society should be beyond that by now. Women in 2012, after all, have taken their place alongside men in the working world (um, still for less pay), in the political world (in numbers still slim), and in the arts (again, still for less pay in most cases, and in terms of reviews and attention, nowhere near equal).

But that’s only part of the conundrum facing women in the creative arts. Forget that we don’t get the reviews and attention, the larger advances. We’re used to all that, as much as we continue to work to change it. What we don’t get in life (as many women will agree) is a wife! What we don’t get is someone who anticipates our needs well enough to leave our minds open to creative pursuit (though well-meaning partners often try). We still nurture and nourish our loved ones, fitting in our writing around them, and often a job to boot. It’s not in our biological makeup to ignore the needs of others, thus making it only our fault that we put our creative endeavors aside to help.

And that, Virginia, is why I believe in Hedgebrook.

HedgebrookAt Hedgebrook, your small cabin has just enough of everything to maximize comfort and minimize housework: one plate, one bowl, one coffee mug, one wine glass, one pan . . . and yet the resident writers are also challenged to use a small wood stove for heat (with supplemental heat available), to visit a bathhouse for bathing (heated tile floors, two roomy showers, a clawfoot tub—it’s hardly a challenge), and to integrate with the natural world in so doing, walking from cabin through thick forest along old animal trails, often in complete darkness. And when it gets dark on Whidbey Island, it can feel like being in the center of a black hole for city slickers. (Yes, flashlights are provided, as are toilets and sinks in each cabin.) In the journals that record each resident’s experience, found in each cabin, the stories are rife with newbie anxieties and missteps, but more so, the final reflective thoughts on these writers’ last days at Hedgebrook. Even experienced and famous writers discover what it was they came for, whether they knew they were looking for it or not. In real life, women rarely get the time and space to even think in those  terms.

For me, the thing I didn’t know I went looking for was myself—my own authentic voice in my work, after nearly seventeen years of working in the world of “what it takes to get published.” It wasn’t that it wasn’t there, but my trust in it had grown shaky. The publishing world is a tough place to maintain your own creative vision, but if you don’t, why write? It came to me in so many small details at Hedgebrook: the way light broke through tall trees to spill across my desk, a cold wind-snapping walk on the beach in search of sand dollars, the laughter and wisdom of the other women in the room at supper. And finally, the two does who stood outside my cabin on the snowy morning I had to leave, just watching me with big deer eyes, saying, “Pay attention. Take this with you.”

It’s a gift everyone should receive, regardless of gender, of course. But I’ll revel in the fact that because I’m a woman who takes my writing seriously, Hedgebrook gave it to me.

Friday, March 2, 2012

They Noticed

Posted today by the Open Road Integrated Media Group Blog in honor of Women's History Month:

Though I always yearned for a male teacher's attention (and developed a few crushes along the way), it was the female teachers who took notice of me, of my writing, and who helped me know that I was smart and had something to say. In the late 1960s, my family moved away from Washington DC and its racial unrest, and the horrible collection of assassinations that changed us forever (much as 9/11 has done for this generation). We landed in the safe suburbs of Denver, where the skies were always blue and the sun always shone. And the people were mostly one color: the same color as us. We didn't move because we were racist, but because my parents were weary of the violence and turmoil.

I entered Miss Toeppen's fifth grade class in January, an over-dressed newcomer from back east. I talked funny, I wore dresses in the land of jeans, and I thought about things a bit differently than the other kids. During creative writing time, I feverishly wrote stories about the world I'd left behind: poor black parents in food lines, interracial couples being harassed by strangers, a kid being gunned down in a riot. Miss Toeppen, new to teaching at 22 and as open-hearted and soft as they come, was bowled over. The rest of the students wrote about sports or pets or vacations, and wrote grudgingly at that. I never wanted to stop. She took me aside one day, sat me down, looked straight into my eyes and said, "You're stories are good, you know that, right?"

In junior high, we were assigned to write a long story about anything we wanted to. Not a short story, a long story, and I'd never been so excited. I'd fallen into a group of kids who, like me, were highly unsupervised and dealing with a few issues at home. We smoked pot and cigarettes, and drank whatever we could get our hands on. As new, more exciting drugs came along, we experimented freely. We worked hard to both pretend that we were grown up and to escape the world of grownups we knew. I wrote a drug and alcohol filled tragedy based on my previous summer, calling it fiction, and turned it in, all 100 pages of it (names changed to protect the not-so-innocent). Sure, I was nervous that my English teacher, Mrs. Deutsch, would "narc" on me and I'd be in big trouble, but it was the 70s and the counter-culture had permeated even the suburbs. When it came time to get the graded stories back, she asked us to come up individually as she called our names. Mine was last, and the bell had rung; all the other students were gone. She handed my story to me and said, "This was very interesting." It had an A++ on the front page. She seemed to be waiting for me to say something. When I didn't, she smiled. "Good job," she said. "Really good job."

Parents now might faint at the thought that a teacher wouldn't hand the story over to the principal or worse, my parents. But because I knew she knew it wasn't fiction, I learned that she trusted me to grow up and learn from this harrowing experience, which was exactly what I did. Perhaps that was in the text or subtext of the story, I don't know, but again, she made me feel like a writer, a real writer. And yes, I still felt like an outsider, all these years later, but I realized that's what a lot of people I admired felt like: writers and poets, artists and activists. I recognized Miss Deutsch as a fellow outsider, in her Bohemian ways and "cool" way of handling my story.

In high school, I once again found my way into a creative writing class led by an outlandish, eccentric woman, Ms. Green, who regaled us with her wild thoughts, laughed loudly, and encouraged us to write something unique, something deep, something true. I fed her story after story, poem after poem, and she was always hungry for more. She read our work at her desk, her chair tipped back a little and an index finger on her lip, her hair large and untamed, murmuring, "Mmm, mmm," at our words, sometimes getting tears in her eyes. She noticed us; she felt what we felt. And she let us know.

I teach writing now, to adults and kids. I try to read their work like that, to get inside the writer's skin and understand her or his intention. I try to let them know how important their stories are. And yes, I read a lot of hard and harrowing stories, obviously based on the writer's experiences. And I try to trust that by witnessing their words, by hearing what they have to say, I'm helping them know that by writing, they, too, will get through the hard stuff.